Wonder how Jefferson Davis
Feels, down there in Montgomery, about Sumter.
He must be thinking pretty hard and fast,
For he’s an able man, no doubt of that.
We were born less than forty miles apart,
Less than a year apart–he got the start
Of me in age, and raising too, I guess,
In fact, from all you hear about the man,
If you set out to pick one of us two
For President, by birth and folks and schooling,
General raising, training up in office,
I guess you’d pick him, nine times out of ten
And yet, somehow, I’ve got to last him out.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Jefferson Davis, first and last president of the Confederacy, was captured by Union cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia one hundred and fifty years ago. Secretly he is happy about this turn of events. He expects to be tried for treason and looks forward to defending himself on Constitutional grounds. Instead, he will spend two years incarcerated, and then be released on bail, never to have his day in court. He would have the misfortune to survive the War for almost a quarter of a century, and to become involved in many querulous debates with former Confederates who sought to blame him for the loss of the War. Far better for Davis if he had been killed by the Union troopers and died, the martyr of the Lost Cause. Instead, he was fated to endure the worst fate for a loser of a great historical turning point: a long life in which to play the role of scapegoat.
Robert E. Lee I think had it right when he said that he could think of no one who could have done as well as Davis as President. A great man who almost led his nation to victory, Davis had the misfortune to be opposed by a greater man leading a stronger nation. In response to his critics, he produced a two volume turgid defense entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), published, ironically, by a New York publishing house. At 1500 pages it is one of the great unread books of American history, the province of only the most obsessive of Civil War scholars, although Oscar Wilde, strangely enough, proclaimed it a literary masterpiece, although even he admitted that he skimmed the military portions. In recent decades Davis, who had his slaves run his plantation along with their own court system, has been often portrayed as a devil stick figure, as if he had invented slavery, a sort of anti-Lincoln. This is ahistoric rubbish. Davis was a fascinating, and often contradictory, man and the scholarship devoted to him has been sadly lacking. The man who came so close to changing the course of the nation deserves better from the servants of Clio.